A caring and patient demeanour will be vital for anyone considering a career as a social worker
As a social worker, you’ll support individuals and their families through difficult times and help to find solutions to their problems. Your aim will be to improve outcomes in people’s live. This could be by making sure that vulnerable people, including children and adults, are safeguarded from harm or by helping people to live more independently with the support they need.
You will need to maintain professional relationships and act as a guide and advocate. On occasions, you may need to use your professional judgment to make tough decisions that might not always be well received by those you’re trying to help.
You’ll work in a variety of settings, which can include schools, hospitals or on the premises of other public sector and voluntary organisations. It’s typical that you’ll specialise in either supporting children and their families or vulnerable adults.
You may have a social work assistant working alongside you and will also work closely with other professionals in health and social care.
Types of social worker
Many social workers work with young people and their families. You might also work with the following groups:
- the elderly
- people with learning and physical disabilities
- young offenders
- people with mental health conditions
- school non-attenders
- drug and alcohol abusers
- the homeless.
Government legislation focusing on the integration of health and social work services means that social workers often work in multidisciplinary teams.
As a social worker, you’ll need to:
- conduct interviews with individuals and families to assess and review their situation
- undertake and write up assessments (sometimes in collaboration with other professionals), which meet specified standards and timescales
- offer information and support
- organise and manage packages of support to enable people to lead the fullest lives possible
- recommend and sometimes make decisions about the best course of action for a particular person or family
- liaise with, and make referrals to, other agencies
- participate in multidisciplinary teams and meetings regarding, for example, child protection or mental health
- maintain accurate records and prepare reports for legal action
- give evidence in court
- participate in training, supervision and team meetings.
- There are no fixed national salary scales, but salaries for newly qualified social workers are typically between £24,000 and £30,000 depending on the local authority and location. If your first job is within the NHS, you’ll typically start on band 6 with a salary between £32,306 to £39,027.
- With further responsibilities and experience, salaries in local authorities can rise to around £40,000. Senior posts such as team manager, commissioning manager and head of service can earn in excess of this amount. Within the NHS, you’ll move on to senior roles at band 7 (£40,057 to £45,839).
- Graduates on the Frontline social work programme will earn while studying for a fully funded postgraduate diploma and Masters degree. You will receive a tax and NI exempt bursary of £18,000 (or £20,000 in London) in the first year of the programme. As a newly qualified social worker in Year 2 of the programme, you'll earn a salary of between £25,000 and £34,000, depending on the location.
Salaries vary depending on a range of factors, including the local authority you work for, the setting you work in (e.g. adult, mental health), your skills and experience, and your location.
Most local authorities would pay travel expenses for journeys made for business purposes. Many local authorities are happy to negotiate flexible working hours, have family-friendly policies and childcare voucher schemes.
Income figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours are normally around 37 hours per week. If you work as a residential care social worker, regular unsocial hours are normal practice. Occasional evening and weekend work may be necessary if working in child protection or fostering and adoption teams.
Part-time work, job shares and career breaks are possible.
What to expect
- The work is office based, but with frequent visits to service users.
- The sector in which you work and the structure of your organisation will affect how you operate. You may be the main professional working with the client but, increasingly, you will be part of a multidisciplinary team, working alongside other professionals such as therapists, health professionals, the police, legal services and education professionals.
- Jobs are available in most areas, although this depends on the size of the local population and the particular social work specialism.
- The nature of social work practice can be both emotionally rewarding and demanding. Working conditions are often under-resourced and heavy caseloads are common. It can be a challenging role, occasionally receiving a lot of media attention, which can be negative when things go seriously wrong. As a result of this, the government is putting more measures in place to support and develop a strong workforce of social workers.
- All social workers are entitled to regular supervision sessions with a more experienced member of staff or manager, which allows the social worker to discuss cases they are working on and get support.
- Travel within a working day is frequent. Absence from home at night is occasional.
- Overseas work or travel is uncommon, although opportunities to work in developing countries do exist. For example, with organisations such as Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and with families in the armed forces through the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA).
Social work is a graduate profession and you will need either an honours or a postgraduate degree in social work to find employment. The degree will need to be approved by one of the four regulators. These are:
- Social Work England
- Social Care Wales
- Northern Ireland Social Care Council (NISCC)
- Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC)
Undergraduate degree courses usually last three or four years full time but part-time courses are also available.
If you already have a degree and intend to complete postgraduate professional training in social work, you’ll need to have gained a minimum of a 2:2. Some universities will only accept applicants with at least a 2:1, so check with each institution.
Both undergraduate and postgraduate courses cover the same topics and have a strong practical element with over 200 days, usually six to seven hours a day, of supervised work placements. Approved postgraduate courses are usually full time and last two years, although there are some part-time courses available. Search for an approved course.
If you wish to train while working, there are several options available:
- Frontline offers an accelerated, two-year programme for graduates who want to work within child protection. You will work with the police, courts, schools and vulnerable children and families, and will have the chance to study for a Masters.
- The Step Up to Social Work programme is an accelerated entry route which combines work and study.
- The Think Ahead fast-track scheme is aimed at graduates with at least a 2:1 in a subject other than social work. It combines academic learning with significant on-the-job working to train you to become a mental health social worker.
- A degree apprenticeship in social work has now been approved, allowing you to train while on the job. You’ll need to apply to a healthcare provider for an apprentice position. See NHS Jobs and Find an Apprenticeship for vacancies.
Learn more about social work courses.
Some students may be eligible for a bursary - see NHS Student Bursaries for further details. The conditions of these bursaries can change from year to year, so you should always check with the institution you're applying to.
You can get specific information on entry requirements and paths to becoming a social worker in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland from the relevant social care workforce regulator.
You will need to show evidence of the following:
- patience and the ability to remain calm in a crisis
- flexibility to adapt to new roles, tasks and situations
- strong observation, analytical and listening skills
- the capacity to absorb legal and procedural information
- the ability to negotiate, mediate and interpret on behalf of service users
- good organisational skills to work autonomously and plan meetings for a caseload of clients.
Empathy combined with a genuine desire to improve the quality of the lives of service users is essential, as is the ability to think on your feet and make difficult decisions under pressure. An interest or participation in some aspect of your local community is useful. General administrative skills are also needed.
You'll need to have relevant experience in a social work or social care setting before being accepted on to a postgraduate course. Gain as much work experience as possible, either through paid positions in community care settings or by undertaking relevant voluntary work. Some universities specify a minimum amount of time to be spent gaining experience so check with individual providers for details.
Social workers are employed by:
- social service departments of local authorities in England and Wales
- social work departments in Scotland
- health and social care trusts in Northern Ireland
- primary care/health service trusts
- GP practices
- hospitals and hospices
- children's homes
- private sector nursing homes
- voluntary and independent agencies.
Settings vary depending on the employer. For example, you may be working in a large department with many hundreds of employees or you could be based in a small organisation where you are the only professionally qualified member of staff.
With experience, you may be able to work in a self-employed or freelance capacity and secure work through agencies. There is a growing market for locum social workers, especially if you have child protection experience. It may be possible to offer counselling, therapy or training skills on a freelance basis. Some local authorities and private homes keep a casual relief list.
Local authority social work tends to have better terms and conditions of employment, but voluntary organisations can offer more flexibility. It's possible to transfer from one sector to another once you're qualified. There are promotion possibilities in both sectors - however, you may be able to take on more responsibility more quickly in the voluntary sector. In both sectors there are a range of operational, management and policy jobs.
There are increasing numbers of social workers operating as independent practitioners and social enterprises are taking over social services in some areas. Information about this can be found via the British Association of Social Workers (BASW).
Look for job vacancies at:
- BASW Jobs
- Children & Young People Now
- Community Care Jobs
- Compass Jobs Fairs
- Health Service Journal Jobs
- Local Government Jobs
- NHS Jobs
You can also look at local and regional press, local authority and council websites and recruitment agencies who may handle social work vacancies.
Discover how to answer social work interview questions.
Qualified social workers in England are required to register with Social Work England and renew their registration on an annual basis. In order to stay on the register, you must keep your training and learning up to date through continuing professional development (CPD). This can include different sorts of learning, such as reading and attending conferences and training courses.
Your employer will usually help to source relevant training courses or may put you through their own training schemes, particularly if they are a large organisation.
Formal schemes are also in place to help support social workers through their career:
- The Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) was launched with the aim of ensuring that newly qualified social workers (NQSWs) receive consistent support in their first year of practice, so that they are able to become confident, competent professionals.
- BASW has details of the professional capabilities framework (PCF), which is an overarching framework of education and professional development for social workers. It sets out what you should be able to demonstrate at each point in your studies and career and can help to identify your training needs.
Social Care Wales is responsible for the Continuing Professional Education and Learning (CPEL) framework for social workers in Wales.
In Northern Ireland, the NISCC provides information about post-qualification training.
In Scotland, registered social workers must take part in CPD which can contribute towards a registered worker's post-registration training and learning (PRTL). See the SSSC website for more details.
Becoming a member of BASW will give you access to conferences, seminars and other training opportunities, as well as keeping you in touch with the profession.
Social workers also need to develop their IT, problem solving, communication, teamwork and personal and professional development skills to succeed in the role.
There are many specialist roles available in social work, once you've completed the appropriate induction and training. These roles include:
- homelessness officer
- day-care social worker
- education welfare officer
- healthcare social worker
- mental health social worker.
Career development may involve a change of role within a specialism, e.g. from child protection to fostering and adoption. It's also possible to transfer from one specialism to another, e.g. from working with children to working with the elderly.
Social work is a profession where promotion is likely to take you away from hands-on work. Three to five years after qualification it's possible to become a senior practitioner, team or care manager. In this role, you would have responsibility for managing other social workers, (resulting in a reduction in direct contact), and an increasing involvement in managerial, financial and political issues.
Another route is to become a practice educator, which allows you to become involved in the supervision and management of social work students and less experienced staff.
In England, Social Work England and the Care Quality Commission (CQC) are responsible for regulating, auditing and reviewing social care providers. They may also offer opportunities for career development. In Wales this is done by Social Care Wales, while it's NISCC in Northern Ireland and SSSC in Scotland.
Another option is to move from one sector to another (statutory, voluntary and independent). You could also consider training and lecturing roles or opportunities for project work and secondments.